Thursday, January 31, 2008

At home in a five star?

Difficult to explain how I landed up at the Taj Mahal's Masala Kraft for lunch one day, but it was sheer lethargy that got me to agree with my companion and the waiter to opt for the vegetarian "Maharashtrian Tiffin" for a working lunch. I'm not Maharashtrian, but I've lived in the state for long enough to know what the food should taste like. So there we went.

I noticed the aesthetically done set up while I munched the complimentary papad assortment. Some time later, our meal was brought, little bowls hanging from a tree of sorts, and set up very painstakingly in front of us.
(Counterclockwise from bottom: rotis, varan, Bharili vangi, mix vegetably curry, batatachi bhaji)
The meal began with farsan (not in pic), which was actually part Gujarati - a piece each of dhokla (steamed cakes made with chickpea flour and tempered with mustard), aloowadi (layers of colocassia/arbi leaves alternated with a chickpea flour and spice paste, steamed, sliced and tempered) , Idada (similar to the dhokla, but white in colour, and made of urad dal), and kothimbir wadi (a cutlet made from chickpea flour, lots of spices and lots of corriander/kothimbir), which was the best of the lot.
The main course looked pretty small, but I was pretty full by the end of it. The Batatachi bhaji was simple, very similar to that which is found in maharashtrian households all over, and served usually with pooris. It's a simple enough dish to make - boiled potatoes tempered with turmeric powder and mustard seeds, and garnished with fresh coconut and corriander.
The mix vegetable curry (they had a name for it which is irrelevant) was quite odd, there was nothing maharashtrian about it, in fact, it tasted like a sour paneer butter masala with extra vegetables in it. Perhaps in another thali it would have been appealing (then again, maybe not), in a Maharashtrian tiffin, it was just an outsider. I could imagine a lot of Shiv Sainiks getting very upset about this inclusion.
The bharili vangi, one of my favourite dishes and made in several different ways all over Maharashtra, is a dish of little eggplants/brinjals which are slit till the stem and stuffed with a spice paste of corriander, cloves, chilli, and grated coconut or groundnut, and simmered in the same gravy. My companion, Lax, caught the goof up even though he's not an insider on Maharashtrian cuisine:
"Isn't there too much groundnut in this?"
Oh dear, yes. It tasted like an entire jar of Skippy's Chunky Peanut Butter had been emptied into the spice paste. I cringed.
My biggest grudge however was the bread accompaniment - we were served tandoori rotis, as opposed to the other options of a Maharashtrian meal - bhakris (rotis made of bajra/millet or jowar/sorghum flours), vade (pooris made of rice flour), or even poli (tava chapatis).
I ended my meal with the varan, which is toor dal cooked with very basic seasoning - cumin and asafoetida, and rice, and I was happy - the varan, topped with a teaspoon of ghee, was just the way it should be. A special mention also to the matka dahi which Lax insisted on.

For dessert, we were given the modak: a dumpling made from maida, which is filled with either chana dal or coconut and jaggery. The dumpling is then deep fried, or steamed. The modak came doused with ghee, but I was pained to find that the modak making had been obviously outsourced to the neighbouring chinese restaurant - the covering was thick and reminiscent of a steamed bun dim-sum. The coconut-jaggery stuffing was a little too dry. Lord Ganesha would not have been pleased at the Chef's interpretation of his favourite sweet dish.

At Rs. 1,100 plus taxes, it was certainly not worth it, except for learning that five star restaurants can really bungle up dishes which, ironically, a lot of staff members, and possibly the chef himself, must be eating at home every single day. I know a lot of people will ask me why the hell I went to a Taj Indian restaurant and not to the Chinese ones, which are much more preferred. Isn't there a reason why 5 star Indian cuisine, with the exception of maybe ITC's Bukhara, is looked down upon? Who exactly are we catering to?

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